Category Archives: Science versus Religion?

Queen of the Sciences

vasili-belyaev-sofia-the-holy-wisdom-of-god-spasa-na-krovi-st-petersburg-rf-undated-1890s-640x336Anyone interested in the relationship between science and theology should find this passage by atheist Paul Davies interesting:

The orthodox view of the nature of the laws of physics contains a long list of tacitly assumed properties.  The laws are regarded, for example, as immutable, eternal, infinitely precise mathematical relationships that transcend the physical universe, and were imprinted on it at the moment of its birth from “outside,” like a maker’s mark, and have remained unchanging ever since… In addition, it is assumed that the physical world is affected by the laws, but the laws are completely impervious to what happens in the universe… It is not hard to discover where this picture of physical laws comes from: it is inherited directly from monotheism, which asserts that a rational being designed the universe according to a set of perfect laws.  And the asymmetry between immutable laws and contingent states mirrors the asymmetry between God and nature: the universe depends utterly on God for its existence, whereas God’s existence does not depend on the universe…

Clearly, then, the orthodox concept of laws of physics derives directly from theology.  It is remarkable that this view has remained largely unchallenged after 300 years of secular science.  Indeed, the “theological model” of the laws of physics is so ingrained in scientific thinking that it is taken for granted.  The hidden assumptions behind the concept of physical laws, and their theological provenance, are simply ignored by almost all except historians of science and theologians.  From the scientific standpoint, however, this uncritical acceptance of the theological model of laws leaves a lot to be desired… 

-Paul Davies, Universe from Bit

This is simply an extension of Hume’s problem of induction. All of science, if one is secular, seems to be a massive logical fallacy that works for no reason at all. It is only theists who have offered an explanation for its working (more than one actually—some are much more sophisticated than the version Davies names here).

One can always debate theism as an explanation. But it makes no sense at all to declare, without giving a secular response to this problem, that atheism is somehow the “scientific” way of thinking. Rather, modern science was invented by theists, for theological reasons, and was only later crowbarred into an atheism that has no concept at all as to why this strange, and acutely theistic, method of inquiry works.

New Atheism is Bad Science

Bad Science book coverScientism is pseudoscience.

If that seems obvious, I can only say that there are many who still need to be told. It continues to strike me as incredible that so many people, who claim to be committed to a tough-minded scientific approach, can become so enamored with the idea that this unsupported (and blatantly incoherent) philosophy is the true spirit of scientific thought.

But what is particularly shocking is how often this kind of pseudoscience is promoted by scientists themselves. Richard Dawkins is, of course, the most obvious example, but there are others.

Still, as professor of the public understanding of the sciences, it was (specifically) Dawkins job to clear up muddles like this–rather than exacerbate the problem. The fact that he spent his career arguing for ‘scientific thought’ that was completely unsupported by any kind of scientific evidence did not help.

If Dawkins had understood this, perhaps scientism wouldn’t be running quite so rampant in modern culture. It rears its (vacuous) head every time someone demands physical evidence for a logical principle–or insists that materialism is true on the grounds of (completely arbitrarily) declaring that magic is the only other option.

One of the more popular incarnations is the appeal to the history of science. “We’ve never found any evidence for the non-natural” or so the phrase goes. I suppose there are dozens of responses to that, but the pertinent one is that absence of evidence is only significant if someone has actually looked for evidence at some point.

And there simply has never been a scientific experiment that tested for transcendence. To claim otherwise, or to claim that science shows things without testing for them is at least pseudoscience, if not downright superstition.

Yet this is exactly the kind of thinking being promoted by people who loudly claim to be the true champions of science. An actual understanding of science would be more careful about logical distinctions, slower to extrapolate philosophical conclusions from small amounts of data, and in general have a better grasp of what questions science is relevant to answer.

We see none of this in the New Atheists, and I find it astonishing that they haven’t been asked for evidence for their claims far more often.

Co-opting Science Shows a Lack of Respect

fiery_preacherThere are few people who disrespect science more consistently, or more flagrantly, than the fans of Richard Dawkins.

A real respect for science, in my view, includes a respect for understanding clearly what science does in general, and what a given experiment  shows in particular.

It makes me uncomfortable to sit in a church and listen to a preacher carelessly speak for God–simply assuming that the divine backs his particular social view without bothering to give a reason.

I have a similar reaction to those who claim to speak for science, insisting that it has shown things that it simply has not. Generally, this involves claims that science has never actually tested, and takes no position on.

As a lover of science, I find this disrespectful.

More often than not, it isn’t even a specific study that is being referenced. Rather, there is simply a vague wave in the direction of “science has shown” or “this is a scientific way of thinking”. It never seems to occur to people that science hasn’t “shown” anything that wasn’t demonstrated experimentally,  and not having tested a thing definitely means that there is no experimental demonstration.

This is typically how co-opting science for one’s purposes starts. When pressed, however, it begins to take a more targeted form: deeply distorting what a particular experiment concluded (or was even testing in the first place).

And sloppiness about what is being tested in an experiment, and, consequently, the wild extrapolations made by the New Atheists, are deeply out of touch with the scientific method.

They are also insulting to real science.

Science is powerful precisely because it is careful not to claim more than it has found. The New Atheists can be heard extolling this virtue all across the internet–yet the attempts to make science claim more than it does are every bit as common.

From glibly asserting that Libet’s experiments disprove free will (though Libet himself pointed out how careful examination of his experiments shows no such thing), to the general claim that God’s existence is somehow a scientific question (that has been tested experimentally) isn’t simply an affront to theology, philosophy, logic, and reason. It is also an affront to science.

By all means, let us enjoy the technologies science provides. And let us not forget to appreciate the hard work and brilliance of those who advance scientific knowledge.

But the fact remains that tacking on glib, untested internet memes as if they should enjoy the respect that real science has earned is worse than non-scientific. It rightly offends those who respect genuine science.


Speak for Yourself

ku-mediumAlex Rosenberg, like many in my acquaintance, attempt to justify materialism by speaking for science in much the same way that Christians often try to justify their ideas by speaking for God.

“Is it really still up to me to choose which way to point my finger, to my left or to my right, or neither? Science answers no.” (Rosenberg, The Atheist’s Guide to Reality p. 152)

Science has offered no proof of determinism–or even anything like a proof. This is for the very simple reason that science doesn’t study the mind’s non-physical traits.

I’ve written on this in the past, however. For now, I’d like to point out that claiming to speak for science, or for God, is hardly a respectful position to take. It is for this reason that those who claim to be the greatest defenders of an idea are often its most insufferable opponents.

Rosenberg’s view of science comes across rather like a teenage girl’s view of her favorite boy-band singer. He’s memorized a lot of facts, and speaks always tenderly about his idol, but such talk only makes it more obvious that he’s never actually met the real thing. As much as he would balk at the idea that he doesn’t actually know or love science for what it actually is, he’s in love with a fantasy.

This would be moot if it were limited to Rosenberg, but it’s been far too often that I’ve been told that quantum mechanics has “disproved” causation or that evolutionary psychology has “disproved” moral realism to wave this off as idiosyncratic.

Actually, I didn’t give much attention to this phenomenon until I started to notice how often Rosenberg and others were willing to jettison any respect for the scientific method in certain fields. He completely dismisses any need to refer to sociology or anthropology when discussing the social effects of nihilism, for instance. As often as I’ve witnessed the term “soft-science” used as an airy excuse for ignoring statical data in favor of a personal gut-instinct, I’m still bothered by it.

The fact that Dawkins, for instance, is still beating the “religion is bad for people” drum in spite of his utter failure to produce any real evidence for it is as clear a sign as one is likely to get. Far too few of the New Atheists show any real interest in what science has to say about their favorite topics. They seem much more interested in what they can make science say.

But turning the object of one’s reverence, be it science or God, into a sort of ventriloquist’s dummy may well be the final stage in closing one’s mind to anything like a dissenting opinion. And this is a very big problem.

After all, why believe anyone else when “science says” one is right?

Science’s Fortuneteller

4186-1537In defending scientism (the belief that science is the source of all knowledge) Alex Rosenberg insists that he doesn’t actually need to deal with the arguments showing his position to be wrong.

Scientism isn’t required to figure out what is wrong with these proofs that experience can’t be physical, so minds can’t be brains. That’s the job of science— neuroscience in particular. (The Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 228)

It’s already been pointed out that this is a category error–that science simply cannot, by definition, explain the mind. In fact, that is precisely what many of the proofs Rosenberg mentions show. So, to say that science will explain it is to assume, without giving a reason, that these proofs are somehow flawed.

But there is more going on here than circular reasoning. Even granting for the sake of argument that science can inquire into metaphysical objects like minds, this is no defense of materialism. This is because Rosenberg has absolutely no reason why, in order to explain the mind, neuroscience won’t need to propose metaphysical properties or substances very much like those believed in by theists.

Of course, one might object that “Of course neuroscientists won’t propose such things; they wouldn’t be doing science if they did that”. And that is exactly the theist’s point. Science doesn’t propose or test for the metaphysical, and so cannot even in principle explain things like mind or experience.

Essentially, we can’t have it both ways. We need either to see that science doesn’t test for the metaphysical, or (falsely) claim that it does. But, if we do the latter, we shouldn’t be making bold predictions that science will never find it.

But there is still the more the more modest view that, while there is no reason (at all) to think that science will show that the mind is physical, there is no reason to think otherwise. This approach is less presumptuous about what science will do, and only suffers from the fact that it is demonstrably false. Science simply doesn’t test for the mind. And, I hasten to add, is no less amazing for that; it has a very different, equally necessary job.

So, in Rosenberg, we run into one of modern culture’s more curious paradoxes. As one of scientist’s most passionate supporters, he seems to know very little about how science actually works–and it is precisely his love affair with science which, like an infatuated teenager, keeps him from seeing the real person through the illusion that he’s found the answer to all of life’s problems.

Rather than make a goddess out of science, however, we need to see it for what it is: an astonishingly useful tool for revealing physical truths, which achieves such power by ignoring (not disproving) the non-physical. Prophesying that science will one day save the materialist from proofs of the non-physical is anything by scientific.

And this is key. Scientism is not merely not science; it is positively anti-science.

Lost in Translation

a-universe-from-nothing-200x300Though I’ve discussed a few different versions of the cosmological argument, I’ve just realized that I’ve never addressed Lawrence Krauss’ claim that the universe can arise from nothing.

This is half-intentional, as the problems with his argument have been pointed out many times before. But, to give the briefest of summaries for those who are unfamiliar: Krauss has pointed out that empty space contains vacuum energy, from which virtual particles can arise. It is not impossible, then, that the entire universe is a massive quantum fluctuation.

To be equally brief in criticizing him, it has been pointed out that, even though scientists often use the word “nothing” to refer to the quantum vacuum, it is not actually nothing. Moreover, this addresses only the Kalam, and is irrelevant to the other cosmological arguments.

I bring this up, however, because it is a good example of a common mistake. Philosophical arguments for God’s existence are often compressed into a scientific mold (often mangling them beyond recognition), then attacked for being poor science.

I’ll not deny that philosophical arguments are poor science, but one suspects that something has been missed here.

Using Krauss as an example, he clearly has compressed the Kalam (which is interested in the question “What is the original cause of physical reality?”) to “What caused the Big Bang?”. Thus, he thinks that by suggesting a cause of the Big Bang, he’s dealt with the argument, though the point being made is clearly not dealt with unless he can show that the quantum vacuum could itself be past eternal.

But the key point is that Krauss would never have made this mistake if he’d not assumed that a philosophical argument was an attempt at science.

Numerous attempts have been made to clarify these issues to Krauss and others. But, rather than speculate as to why they have failed, I’d like to make the point that one cannot press the idea that science will answer philosophical questions by simply assuming that these questions are scientific. That would, after all, be circular reasoning.

In fact, I think this is where we get the idea that there is some inherent conflict between science and religion. It seems more that there is a conflict between what is said in the name of science, and what is said in the name of religion. And a real conflict seems to depend on misusing one of the two of these disciplines.

(Not) Looking for Meaning

searching__but_not_seeing__by_lyndzieAlex Rosenberg is so dogmatically committed to his materialistic atheism that he’s willing to present an excellent argument against it as if it were a point in its favor:

In fact, wherever and whenever there is even the slightest appearance of purpose in the universe, the scientist’s task is to figure out natural selection’s sleight of hand. (Atheist’s Guide to Reality, p. 92)

Rosenberg, like most atheists I encounter, tries to support his atheism in a particular view of science: the idea that there is no other source of knowledge. But, here, we have him stating directly that science rules out, a priori, any concept of purpose. Its only job is to explain away purpose, not to actually consider the idea that it might really exist.

And he’s absolutely right about this last; that is the job of the scientist. Useful as it is, considering the possibility that there is more to reality than the physical is not part of it.

But to say that, because science is so good at its job, all other jobs aren’t useful is more that a little presumptuous. I’d be more inclined to call that a wild non-sequitur. One of the great strengths of science is the specificity with which it defines the limits of its inquiry. To demand that science investigates everything, then, is as anti-science as it is anti-religion.

Presumably, real support of science would involve learning what science actually is and does. And a belief that it is some universal form of inquiry, as applicable to metaphysical and spiritual questions as it is to physical prediction, is treating science as if it were religion and philosophy.

And the science lover in me is bothered by that.